Week 34. Under the microscope

Over the course of our courtship, engagement, pregnant with our first child, the first year of sleepless baby care, Steven and I each studied ancient global phenomenon through the eye piece of microscopes. Him, mountain building and earthquakes. Me, ice sheets and the migration of ecosystems.

We didn’t go on vacation, we didn’t watch the progress of bills through the legislature, we didn’t plan for retirement or worry about lack of finances to plan for.

Under a microscope I oriented myself on a grid of North, South, East, West. The forest of eight thousand years ago, pollen of oak, pine, fir. I looked through the scope and my hand drew on paper as if it were reaching through a portal from one world to another. Five hundred years later: pollen of grasses, ragweed, sagebrush – an open prairie that corresponded with drought.

I pulled out my scope this morning, touched it like I would a lover. I introduced it to the boys like it was an old friend. I felt the urge to dive in, leave off.  But what we had to look at was bits of our neighborhood: oak leaf, dirt, kale, onion skin.  I could see without looking the cell walls, reaching vein structures. As if once you see, you cannot forget the level of detail in each bit of life.

Materials: Silver metallic sharpie, pencil, Micron 01, grass pollen grain from my lab notes.

My childhood microscope was red with a rubber base that could be removed. The slides it came with fixed protozoa, springtails, fungi, pollen at their centers, but in the spring, there was swamp water, and once, my dad cut his thumb open onto a bare slide so I’d have something interesting to look at.

Knowing the world is composed of layers each more bizarre than the last, unseen but also open to gaze, is some kind of savior. Conjuring the integrity offered by cells and calling out their parts – dark planets: lamina propria, zona pellucida, corona radiata.

I’ve been reading about geophagy (eating dirt). It can be a cultural and/or desired practice, often used to gird a tender stomach.

I ate dirt once at El Santuario de Chimayó, a Catholic shrine in the Sangre de Cristos. The tierra bendita – holy dirt- fills a well in the floor and is replenished with soil from mountaints. Pocito bendito then perhaps. I got horribly ill, whether from helminth or amoeba I don’t know. I’m still amazed that microscopic beings can take you over, render you a constellation of battling organisms.

Gerald Callahan, in a report for Emerging Infectious Diseases, writes that the dirt at Chimayó is in fact sacred, just like that sitting under floorboards and in gardens and graveyards the world over.

Materials: Pigma Micron .005 and .01 and gouache.

“Eating Dirt” by Gerald Callahan in Emerging Infectious Diseases


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